Web hosting 101: What to look for

Can't get past those fancy tech terms and abbreviations? Here are the dos and don'ts when choosing a provider to host your site.

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By Emily Maltby, CNNMoney.com staff writer

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NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- If your business has an online presence, picking a Web host is one of the most critical decisions you'll make. The host manages the servers on which your site will run and literally has control of your company's connection to its customers.

But picking the right one can be daunting: Because most major hosting companies offer similar features, it takes some sleuthing to figure out which one will best suit your company's needs.

A quick overview

As you start your research, be wary of side-by-side comparison sites. Some are affiliated with hosting companies - their "reviews" are actually paid advertisements. While it's good practice to use a wide variety of sources to get multiple opinions, it's best to conduct your own fact-check with the host itself, which may require a thorough look through the fine print.

Top Ten Reviews is a well-known, ad-supported ranking site for about a hundred different consumer-technology categories. Its Web hosts review offers a side-by-side features comparison for an assortment of major hosting companies.

Top 10 Web Hosting is another ranking site that offers a similar rundown. Updated daily, the site is run by Eli Herskovitz, a hosting specialist who has ranked sites for seven years and has published numerous articles on the topic. Some hosting companies contribute financially to Herskovitz's site, payments that he says help defray the site's operating costs, but Top 10 Web Hosting's reviews process is editorially independent.

A third source is CNET's review site, which isn't as user-friendly as other ranking sites but does feature a useful forum in which users discuss their hosting experiences. CNET (CNET) ranks providers on a scale that awards up to three stars, one each for site functionality, consumer protections and customer service.

After you've identified legitimate resources for comparing hosts, the next step is to evaluate the features most vital to small businesses.

Customer service

Hosting experts say good support is the most crucial issue for a small business owner. "Nothing is more frustrating than paying on a monthly basis and not being able to get through to customer service for hours and then having to pick up the pieces after the damage is done," says David Ropelato, IT director for Top Ten Reviews.

"Make sure that support is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week," suggests Herskovitz. "Technical problems could occur any time."

Test the hosts by calling or e-mailing them with questions and concerns. If they can't deliver an answer within 24 hours, ditch 'em. Contrary to popular belief, it's not technical issues that usually require immediate responses. It's the legal ones.

Los Angeles-based Internet attorney Erik Syverson has seen many small business Web sites taken down without notice, causing headaches and financial setbacks. Web sites that allow users to post content are particularly risk. Under current law, if copyright owners find their work illegally posted on a Web site, they can send a message to those who run the site demanding the content's removal. Those messages usually go to the Web host.

"The hosts tend to have a knee-jerk reaction when they get these notices, and they pull down the site without question," Syverson says. "The unfortunate part is that the host is not required to look into the matter but is required to take down all alleged infringing content. Hence, bogus claims can shut down a site. This is why it's important for the host company to be responsive."

If a site gets shut down, the business owner can file a counter notification within 10 days, and then the burden is on the complainant to file a copyright infringement suit in court. The process, lasting days to weeks, usually results in lost business. (One way to keep this from happening is to ask those who see copyright infringement to contact you directly. Remember to publicly provide an e-mail address.)

Reliability

Reviews from current users, on forums such as CNET's, can give you a sense of how reliable a Web host is. Does it have effective backups to prevent data from being lost? Does it often shut down for maintenance? The Better Business Bureau is another good place to get an honest perspective, Herskovitz says. You can look up customer complaints online on the BBB's Web site, which also features customer reviews.

Ryan Roskilly runs Tidal Media Group, which designs and hosts small business Web sites. He recommends that customers check out their host's service level agreements, will often say how many minutes or hours of uptime each year customers are guaranteed. The agreement may also describe the host's redundancy arrangements.

"Normally a Web host has a server farm. In the event that one server dies, the other servers in the farm can host the Web site," Greg Bozigian, owner of digital business development firm Visionary View. "Small business owners should always ask about the backup and disaster recovery plan in the event that an instance does occur."

Disk space

Once you've established which companies have five-star support levels, the next thing you should look at are the specs for their hosting plans. What's best will vary depending on your site's needs - both now and in the future. If you'll be using the site as an online business card for your crafts business, for example, you probably won't need many features. But be sure to think ahead. As you grow, you may want to start selling those crafts online, and you'll be out of luck if the host you chose doesn't have a quality checkout application.

"Disk space" is the amount of content and data that you can store on your host's server. If you've only got text, there's little you'll need to worry about. But if you've got images, downloads or audio and visual files, pay attention to what is offered.

"Most simple Web pages average about 40KB in size," says Herskovitz. "Thumbnail images will probably be about 2KB or 3KB, and full-size images can be kept to as low as 150KB to 200KB without sacrificing too much in the way of quality. An 8-second video clip will be about 1MB in size. Any site that is graphic-intensive or has downloadable files will need a large amount of disk space for storage."

Tidal Media Group's Roskilly says that most small businesses use less than 100MB of space.

The rule of thumb? "Shoot for the stars," Ropelato says. "Get as much as you can up front or it could cost you to upgrade later. I recommend a minimum of 4GB to 5GB if you are creating an e-commerce site."

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